Have We Reached the Tipping Point?

Richard Houghton

Acting President & Senior Scientist
Richard A. Houghton

Climate change seems to be getting attention – again. The National Climate Assessment appeared last spring. The three volumes of the UN’s 5th IPCC Assessment have been published over the last few months, with stronger statements about the consequences of continued climate change – the risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts. Yet, at the same time, that assessment assured us that the sooner we act, the lower the risk – and the lower the cost. And there is much we can do.

The Climate March in New York City in October drew about 400,000 people and occurred at about the same time that the New Climate Economy released its report on how climate mitigation and adaptation are, or can be, consistent with economic growth.

Perhaps the most important development was last month: the big news that the US and China had reached an agreement on reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases. That agreement helps defuse the argument that the US needn’t do anything about reducing emissions because the other big emitters (China) are going to continue increasing theirs. The US may not be popular throughout the world, but it is still looked to for leadership, and that leadership has not been forthcoming on the issue of climate change.

As I write this, the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is meeting in Lima, Peru. Although the meeting is largely in preparation for next year’s COP 21 in Paris, too many COPs have gone by with too little progress in international agreements on climate.

All of the recent activity and attention suggests that climate awareness has reached new heights and that countries are now willing to take steps they had previously avoided. One wonders, of course, whether that awareness will persist, grow, and lead to stronger actions and agreements, or whether it will dwindle again in the absence of severe storms, droughts, and crop failures, or be diverted again by the presence of new economic or political crises. Have we reached the tipping point in public opinion about climate change? Have we experienced enough of the increase in extreme weather disasters (with less than a 1oC global warming), or will the recent attention swing back to apathy – go the way of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street?

What needs to be done to avoid further climatic disruption is drastic, but considerably less so, I believe, than the effects of a continued warming. Particularly worrisome are the “potentially irreversible changes.”

It’s probably premature to congratulate ourselves that we’ve turned the corner on a unified commitment to reduce emissions – to do what’s necessary to avert further climatic disruption. On the other hand, the alternative (that is, business as usual) is that we tacitly agree to emit more heat-trapping gases this year than last year. I’m reminded of Norman Cousins’ remark that “progress begins with the belief that what is necessary is possible.” I hope we’ve reached that beginning.